Cannes Film Festival’s chief Thierry Fremaux was in a cheerful mood when he announced his sprawling Official Selection during Thursday’s press conference at the Normandie Theater in Paris. Not only because it was the first live event in many months, but most importantly because in spite of all the ups and downs caused by the ongoing pandemic, this year’s lineup is strong, appealing and surprising. Both big-name auteurs like Wes Anderson (“The French Dispatch”), Leos Carax (“Annette”), Paul Verhoeven (“Benedetta”), as well as Asghar Farhadi (“A Hero), Jacques Audiard (“Les Olympiades”) and Andrea Arnold (“Cow”) and filmmakers who will be making their debuts in competition, like Julia Ducournau (“Titane”), Nabil Ayouch (“Casablanca Beats”), Sean Baker (“Red Rocket”), Ildikó Enyedi (“The Story of My Wife”) and Mia Hansen-Løve (“Bergman Island”) were included in the selection. Fremaux was still in a euphoric state of mind several hours after the announcement, as he was getting friendly text messages from filmmakers including Sean Penn, and still having talks over adding some more movies — including a U.S. blockbuster which he hopes will screen on the beach.
You seem in a particularly good mood today.
I feel very happy, and sad at the same time. Happy for all the films we will show, but this beautiful selection is sad for those we weren’t able to select. And I’m still very much in the rush of the action. Because we’re not done yet!!
In terms of the selection?
Yes, we still have some little additions to make here and there. It’s as if we had cooked a wonderful meal and we’re adding the finishing touches to make it even tastier. The perspective of rejoicing with everyone we’ve missed in Cannes will become a reality soon.
Your selection this year seems huge, it’s a bit like Noah’s Ark!
No there aren’t so many films. A little more than usual. There will be a little more once we make the additions.
How many will you be adding?
I think there will be five more films, but maybe less. It’s still very complicated to figure out.
During the press conference, it seemed like the selection had finalized at the very last minute. Was that how it happened?
Yes, but that’s also because it’s my style to do press conference like that, where we’re face to face and there’s some spontaneity. So some filmmakers or journalists were sending me texts or questions (Jacques Audiard sent a message clarifying the Olympiades — which was the original title of his film – referred to a neighborhood in the 13th District). It’s a way to be more modern. We’re not going to do these as we did 60 years ago. We’re in 2021!
Did you finish late last night?
No, we went to bed at 1 a.m. It’s a bit earlier than usual. But yes, it’s complicated. There are two obsessions in the world of cinema. The Oscars and Cannes’ competition. Everyone wants to be in competition and feels like if they are not in competition it’s a downgrade.
But Cannes is a selection of 60 films and the main thing is to envision the best position for each film. The press can be harsher at Cannes more than at any other festival and sometimes it gives us problems because filmmakers are afraid to come, they think it’s less risky to go to another festival.
Will you keep the system launched in 2019 where critics watch the films at the same time as other guests or if they are allowed to watch them before, they have to keep their reviews under embargo until the start of the gala screenings?
Yes, that system allowed us to smooth out the presentation of films and draw the focus on the gala premieres, instead of having this near-exclusive focus on what’s written by critics before everyone has gotten a chance to see the actual films. We want the reactions to be collective.
How did you manage to get Sean Penn back in competition after the bashing he endured when he presented “The Last Face” in competition in 2016?
Sean directed a very, very beautiful film that when we saw it we knew it deserved to be in competition.
Did you sense some apprehension?
I don’t know. In any case he’s returning in the best possible conditions. He’s a very modest, humble and talented artist and he’s proved it throughout his career.
And he appears in it.
But it’s a small part.
Speaking of American films, there aren’t too many studio films in the Official Selection but there are quite a few U.S. indie films.
There is Universal, Focus and Fox Searchlight… Hollywood is there and that’s very, very good. Then, yes, there are also lots of American independent films. And that’s interesting. Why is that? Because this cinema has always existed. American cinema had its coming of age in the 1970s and it’s still very vibrant today and this selection reflects it. For us to it’s important to find the new voices of American cinema.
Was it difficult to reassure Americans to come to the festival in spite of the pandemic?
Yes, but the Americans aren’t the only ones worried about the pandemic. Still, people have been eager to come to the festival. We’ve had many people in the industry, journalists and filmmakers telling us that they got vaccinated to come to the festival. Many Latin Americans will come and will do their quarantine with their families in Spain or in Portugal. Brazilians and Brits will also find ways, taking vacations in France before coming to Cannes.
As far as women in the Official Selection, it’s a record number! And in competition you have four, like in 2019.
In competition, there are three French films directed by men (I’m not taking into account Leos Carax who is half-American) and three women.
We’re working with advocacy groups on the issue of gender parity and we were the first festival to sign a parity pledge. The festival’s administration has more and more women and Pierre Lescure said he’s committed to finding a successor and wants it to be a woman. As far as the Official Selection, when we make it we don’t take into consideration the gender, race, religion. We look at the film. We do look at where the films are coming from, but that’s to ensure the universal dimension of the festival. But when we hesitate between two films and one of them is directed by a woman we take the one directed by a woman.
Things are evolving on the question of gender parity when it comes to filmmakers and we’re seeing this evolution in the makeup of Un Certain Regard where there are more women directors than men. In 15 years, these female directors will be in competition. What we’re seeing also in France with the presence of many well-established female directors reflects our unique system which has preserved our national cinema. And the importance of theaters in our ecosystem is vital.
Speaking of which, why is Netflix not back in Cannes this year?
A film is still a work of art that must be discovered on a big screen and we’re staying true to this mantra for the films in competition. We see that so many talented filmmakers, including ones like Jane Campion and Paolo Sorrentino who have presented their films at Cannes before, are making films with Netflix now and Netflix is doing beautiful movies. But Amazon is too, with “Annette,” and they will be in Cannes. The different between Amazon and Netflix is that Amazon accepts that the film gets shown in theaters. So “Annette” plays at Cannes.
So why is Netflix not willing to go out of competition?
That’s a question we should ask them. I’m asking them again and again to return out of competition or sell the French rights to a local distributors. They work with local distributors when they buy a film at Cannes for global rights outside of France. God knows that their productions are extraordinary. But they don’t accept our rules and I respect that. But no one can say Cannes doesn’t want Netflix. Cannes wants Netflix.
But the issue is that once they sell the film to a French distributor they have to wait 36 months to show it to their subscribers in France.
Yes of course, they are right to find it abnormal. We must modernize our windowing system. That said, Netflix would be welcomed back as heroes on the Croisette if they came out of competition with a film, with a lavish red carpet gala premiere at 7 p.m. It would be formidable.
Which movies do you think will spark hot debates on the Croisette? Perhaps the Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid with “Ahed’s Knee” ?
I don’t want to make distinctions between films because I love them all. And I can’t make predictions about what will happen on the jury. No one knows! But what we know is that it will be a very international edition of Cannes with many countries that will have a rare presence in a competition, like Bulgaria, Iceland and Morocco. We feel that this Cannes edition will be a sweet, tender, friendly reunion. Giving the Honorary Palme d’Or to Jodie Foster has a special meaning for us. She first came to Cannes as a child with “Taxi Driver,” and today we look at her career, her dedication and advocacy with such admiration. Cannes is also a cultural event and there will be some events around the Official Selection with musical moments, concerts on the beach, shows, and tributes.
On paper, it seems like a lot of movies are depressing, talking about sickness, accidents, alienation, poverty, old age…
But that’s only on paper because many are actually uplifting movies. Catherine Corsini’s film “La Fracture” for instance is a comedy. It’s a social comedy, but a comedy. Nabil Ayouch’s film “Casablanca Beats” is full of hope, and “Compartment No. 6” is a tender road trip.
There aren’t that many Asian movies in this Official Selection.
It’s true. Chinese cinema is vibrant but I also find that we don’t have enough.
Is that because vaccination issues in some countries in Asia could make it more difficult to travel?
No, no. Asian filmmakers sent us films regardless of these considerations. But the issue of vaccination is at the crux of the battle. Cannes is a global festival and we make it all together – artists, professionals, media outlets, the city of Cannes. We want it to be that way even if it’s a particular year and we are trying to find solutions to welcome guests from all around the world, including from the U.S. and the U.K. in the best possible conditions.
How are you going to maintain the buzzy atmosphere around the red carpet considering the health protocols? Are you going to have a wall block the view of the red carpet like Venice did last year?
The situation in July 2021 is different from what it was in September 2020 so I hope we’ll be able to have this festival feel around the red carpet.
Have you become somewhat of an epidemiologist?
Well, like everyone, it’s a constant preoccupation. Because I have this responsibility of having to organize a global festival. I have to track down every detail, every new information.
Besides the pandemic, what were the biggest challenges you faced putting this Official Selection together in time?
We almost had two years of films to go through. And the other challenge is to host the festival in July. It’s not the same as when we do it in May because we did this selection at the same time as my colleagues over at San Sebastian and Venice. We had to trigger the desire of filmmakers and they proved us that the desire was reciprocal. And lastly, our mission was to apply the fundamental principles of Cannes which is to strike a balance between films from well-established filmmakers, emerging directors, classical films, and movies from countries with emerging film industries. And I think the Official Selection reflects this balancing act.